Fake glamour of commerce is a shared Christmas myth

Advertising and shop windows motivate the trek of weary Christmas shoppers

Alienated shoppers: demand is the vector that points us straight to Christmas. Photograph: Alan Betson

Alienated shoppers: demand is the vector that points us straight to Christmas. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

There is a lacework of lights strung across the streets. Aerosols spray frozen breath as snow crystals are scrawled on shop windows. Cute robins perch on yuletide logs. Christmas is coming with one clear message: it’s time to buy.

The city is a ringing till. Get caught in the warming glow. Christmas carols, cribs. Crowds in town. Check the opening hours. How many shopping days left?

It starts with the dying howl of Halloween, as poorly carved pumpkins give up grinning, rot and collapse in on themselves. Months before, there is Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. There are the oval chocolate eggs of Easter which scramble on to shelves in the wake of the Valentine marketing massacre. In the midst of this year’s pre-February 14th sale of fake romance and false love, a young niece making her own card stopped me short: she had observed the human heart is not heart-shaped at all.

Commerce has its own persuasive calendar and has come back around to Christmas. There is cheer and ramped-up goodwill, as people anticipate time with family and friends, some days off work, a chance to hook up over drinks.

There is a joy in giving and receiving presents, maybe the ritual of turkey dinner. There may be sadness and melancholia in reflecting on previous Christmases and people and feelings we may have lost. There may be the great joy of spiritual celebration.

Surge of purchase

But on the streets, the urban ambience is charged with the surge of purchase. By December 25th, we will all have acted out the obligations of commerce. Presents, food, clothes: shopping is how we live. You have the money, so spend it.

You don’t have the money? Spend it anyway. Buy what you don’t need. What price can you put on your family and friends but the sum total of transactional values? Behind the cruel hyperanimation of toys in TV ads is a “magical” lie. And radio commercials would have you believe shopping in itself is an erotic act of glamour.

Alex Schneideman’s Want More is an almost wordless book of black-and-white photographs, with six text pages to set the tone. Portraying frozen moments in the lives of alienated consumers, it is a timely publication ahead of Christmas.

This is Broadway, Oxford Street, Henry Street, Grafton Street, the mythical high street of wherever you shop. The images and the characters are recognisable to anyone buying things in town all these weeks after the clock has changed.

Through the cold and dark moves a thronging crowd of tired shoppers. Small human players are lost in a commercial landscape: they are co-opted as pixels into a picture of economics.

Schneideman captures the lonely struggling to buy things they presumably need. Maybe they have happy families waiting for them at home, eager for more happiness from the latest purchase. These are the tormented human faces of powerless market players; points on the graph of shifting demand.

Dark trek

Demand is the vector that points us straight to Christmas. People’s faces are anxious and cold, pinched like their pockets. Schneideman’s portraits of young and old laden with bags present a critique of shopping. He shows mannequins bathing in the glow of spotlights, motivating the dark trek of the buyer.

One photo shows a female dummy with a broken face bandaged with silver masking tape: “it” becomes a “she” afforded more kindness than the shoppers milling past.

Schneideman is not focused on Christmas, but his camera gives us seasonal pause for thought. His most potent image is of a shop assistant sweeping up broken plastic hangers. This is a study of mass consumer excess in which somehow, with all the choice, there is still not quite enough.

The puny black approximations of human shoulders lie in shattered pieces on the shop floor: the consumer’s body and soul reduced to clavicle- shaped coat hangers, a flock of swallows fallen.

But the sad consumers continue. They sidestep the broken debris. They make for the checkout and they scurry home.

Do a calculation: how many shopping days left to Christmas? One fewer.

John Fleming is an Irish Times journalist and fiction writer. Want More by Alex Schneideman is published by Art/Books (€29.99)

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